Separation of Road and Trail

A few weeks ago, my sister–with whom I habitually debate the merits of barefoot and barefoot style running–sent me a New York times piece on Myths of Running. The article basically reports the findings of two biomechanics researchers. The first one reports that there is no correlation between foot strike type and performance in an Elite 10k. The second explores the question of whether barefoot or shod running is most efficient. I won’t get into the details of the specific findings; rather I’ll use the latter study to discuss shoe choice across road and trail running.

In my discussion with my sister, I argued that the elephant in the room in most barefoot vs. shoes debates is the surface upon which running is done. After experiencing a radical change in average running surface and a resulting injury, I’ve come to think a distinction should be made between surfaces and the appropriate footwear.  I see that as a separation of road and trail. 

My transition into more minimal shoes started in June 2011 when I stepped down from Nike Structure Triax into Brooks ravennas. Since then, I’ve run through 2 pairs of Saucony Mirage, 2 pairs of Kinvaras, and now 2 pairs of Inov-8 F-Lite 195’s. I got into the 195’s this summer while living in Seattle, WA, where the surplus of consistently soft running routes drew my training away from the roads and into the Cascades. When I moved back to Champaign, IL in August, I immediately felt an increased training load in my feet because Champaign offers less soft running mileage and much less consistent soft surfaces. Fields are chopped up by roads, dirt roads only last 1-2 miles, etc. Consistently training with tight feet all fall caught up with me on a trail run in Madison, WI in October when I hit a rock with my forefoot and strained my metatarsal ligaments. The injury, partly a freak accident and partly shoe choice related, sidelined me for 2 weeks.

As I came back from the time off, I noticed how much my newly supple, responsive feet enabled a better gait than my previously consistently tight feet did, especially since my left foot was historically more unevenly more tight than my right. Trying to run in too little shoe had been aggravating my feet, essentially overtraining them to the point that they could not recover quickly enough to function optimally. At the same time, I have also been observing the athletes I coach in the Fighting Illini Triathlon club who wear minimal shoes. I’ve been watching to see how they perform around Champaign. I’ve arrived at the opinion that the key to footwear is to choose:

(1)  a shoe that in the short term encourages good foot mechanics for each run, tailored to the day’s route surface and variability

(2)  a shoe lineup that in the long term provides an optimal muscular stress to strengthen the feet but not overwork them.

From the Ravennas until now, I have been searching for the perfect shoe that will feel just as good on the road as it does in the grass. For those of us who race on roads but enjoy to train on trails, a shoe appropriate for pavement may not be appropriate for single-track or grass. For example, the Inov-8’s i wear now are 9mm, a thickness that is borderline too firm for a 15 mile run on a hard surface. However, they have a very good combination of feel and ground protection for grass or trails. A perfect trans-road-and-trail shoe may exist somewhere, but my recent experiences have encouraged me to give up the search. Most road shoes will muffle the grass too much, and trail shoes will be too little cushion for high mileage on pavement. Hence, I suggest a separate of road and trail.

I have begun testing the theory, with the F-Lite 195’s as my trail/off-road shoes and Adidas Hagio as my roadies. Ultimately, my goal of exploring minimalism was to get faster and have better mechanics, so we shall see if this small tweak in shoe-ology will the excess stress away from my feet and lead to improvements in both.

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